The Unbearable Lightness of the B List

flushing meadows

One rain delay followed another, and we were no longer free to come and go on our own terms, but jerked back and forth between the VIP lounge and friends box by the weather. Finally, we were seated for good, and play resumed. The screeching of the nearby subway brakes rubbed nerves raw. I love New York. Another plane flew overhead, sending rumblings and vibrations throughout the entire stadium. I looked up and wished I was on it. I was caught in this pose by World Tennis, and in the next issue a photo of me staring at the heavens appeared, captioned “Raynes’ girlfriend prays for an ace.”

And I didn’t like to have my picture taken; I never looked like what I thought of myself when I saw those photos later. That was essentially because I was being someone I didn’t want to be. The impulse to do something simply because you can will often get you into trouble, and that certainly was true with me, with us. That’s how it started. Not generally interested in younger men or overly impressed by popular sport figures, the novelty of my desire for Michael and more so of the corresponding response was certainly part of the attraction. But this Michael—Michael Raynes, a sophomore at Stanford when I was a senior there, and a tennis player of such ability that career-wise he had no business being in school—this Michael carried a hefty worth on his own measure. A tangle of toffee-colored hair, rubber-banded out-of-the-way when on court; eyes midnight blue with long, batty lashes; features that gave his face an arrogant cast—not conventionally handsome, but more attractive for that. He laughed like a kid, and when he laughed he looked like he was twelve years old.

We had met by chance the year before, assigned to the same section of Professor Norris’ Introduction to Sociology. When the class broke up into teams for various exercises, we usually found ourselves on the same side. This was a wildly popular class as it required no paper or final exam, just a project of one’s own making due the last day of class. The creativity exhibited in avoiding even a modicum of effort to come up with something passable, I remember, was stunning. Rather unimaginatively I submitted some five pages of mumblings about something, typed up in the typical stream-of-consciousness of the wee hours of the night, and one genius turned up with a Möbius strip with key phrases hand-printed on it. Michael turned in a tape cassette on which he had recorded several radio ads. This tape, he declared with a straight face, demonstrated the commercialization of society.

That was the spring of my junior year; but now a year later, graduation loomed worrisomely, and I was beginning to panic. Unlike Michael my future was not clear to me. Majoring in fine art, minoring in Spanish practically guaranteed an indeterminable period of unemployment. At times it made me question my judgment. What would I do? Support myself with my art perhaps? Marry early? Marry rich? Not bloody likely. I carried on a running commentary, a point-counterpoint in my head—too immature to make the hard choices, to quietly give up my dreams, learn a marketable trade, hook onto a settling man . . . no, no . . . my life was in those dreams. But I had to do something, obviously; I couldn’t retreat back to Ohio, back to my parents, would not crawl back into my comfortably broken-in bed, scooping up my cat, Izzie, pulling the covers up over both our heads—I’d wake up 60 years old in the jerkwater, Izzie long gone. That’s why I went to school in the first place. Full of private passions, I was in need of public markers. The jobs I did want paid nothing (literally); the ones common sense and Dad told me to apply for were just . . . I’d wring my hands; was it possible not to do damage for pay?

Immediately before graduation I decided to go the way the waters were running and let them carry me. In late May, Michael advanced to the round of 16 at Paris—the second best showing among the American men—and won the NCAA men’s singles title for the second time in as many years. The visibility and timing of these achievements, coming as they did one right after the other, turned a promising kid toiling among many into the next hot thing, changing both our lives forever. He had departed for the NCAA’s in relative silence, but returned from Paris with a mesmerizing, insistent hum. The time had arrived to blow off school and head out on the road to get his. Everyone around him agreed that in his case it was not a matter of choice. His first scheduled pro-circuit date was set for two months hence, in Kansas City, just a few weeks after Wimbledon. (High expectations had already begun to be voiced by some in the media for the All England Club, but those in the know knew Michael did not like playing on grass.)

Stanford’s annual end-of-year banquet honoring its sports teams was the chosen point of departure, the announcement to be made the following Monday so as not to officially upstage the other Cardinal athletes. His parents flew in from Eugene for the dinner and press conference, and I met them for the first time. That Saturday night in June saw the decoupling of Michael from his underpinning and his placement on the radar screen of fame, the faintest blip among a myriad of brighter luminaries to be sure, but separate, different now from the rest of us. It was a revelation to me. I was proud of my friend, in over my head, and intoxicated by my familiarity, my exclusivity with the boy everyone wanted. (‘Yes, we’re ever so close . . .’) I could touch him when I pleased, put my hand on his arm; others had to keep their distance. I knew what he liked to eat, what tapes he played in the car, what he did or didn’t wear to bed. I had keys to all those doors swinging on my belt loop while those hovering around that night could only knock.

The private party celebrating Michael’s victories and his decision to turn pro continued after the school gala back at his now former coach’s house. Perched on a sofa arm there, arms and legs crossed, a glass of wine pressed against my flushed check, I grew uncomfortably self-aware and slightly sloshed. A merry-go-round of admirers revolved dizzyingly around me, stopping now and then to reveal yet another of Michael’s supporters, each full of ready compliments, each a little too familiar, each uncannily similar to the last. When it became apparent I didn’t yet understand there would no longer be small talk, only bartering, the stranger strolled away and the ride spun round again.

Several genial but unfocused conversations later, I wandered into the kitchen and found myself face to face with the man of the hour. He was hiding in there. Michael smiled—he didn’t have to say anything to me. He popped the door latch and the door to the dining room swung shut; he turned on the kitchen radio to cut the din issuing from the living room where all the action was, his father talking potential business, his mother sitting quietly drinking her champagne, happy to be in the midst of something pleasant without having made any effort to bring it about. He switched off the overhead track lights and we stood there alone for the moment, the fluorescent lighting from under the cabinets glinting off the liquor bottles and trays of slowly coagulating food, giving a stagey, nightclubish feel to the room. Coming around the back of me, Michael put his arms around my waist—in these heels we were almost the same height and fit together nicely. We swayed together, our bodies rubbing against one another to the rhythm of the music. He lifted the wayward mass of hair off my shoulders and ran his mouth up the side of my neck. “C’mon, come with me,” he urged in my ear. He was emanating, vibrating with the seductive glow of popular success. Every aspect of him, every little gesture seemed profound, seemed better, carried more charm than anything other pedestrian souls could offer. It would be exciting to go around the world with this man; on the other hand, I could work for a bank. This plane was taxiing for takeoff. Darling, I’m gonna see the world from high on your wings.

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